Subtle Signs That Can Derail an Executive-Level Video Interview

August 11, 2020

Video interviews are a vital component of most modern hiring processes. Executives seeking career advancement should know how the medium can magnify a candidate’s attention to detail — or lack thereof. Lindsay Guzowski, Partner at Falcon, leads C-Suite searches for a number of leading middle-market private equity firms. In this Q&A, she details best practices when prepping for a virtual executive-level interview.

What constitutes appropriate video interview attire?

Traditionally, you show up to an in-person interview in either a suit, no tie or a full suit, depending on company culture. That’s not necessarily the case with video interviews. I’ve found more people overdressing for video interviews amidst Covid-19 – people tend to look a little silly wearing a tie or full suit from the waist up when they’re sitting at home. It just looks out of touch with the situation.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen people dress way down and wear T-shirts. That doesn’t give a great impression either.

My recommendation is to dress exactly like you would if you were in your office. Even if you’re at home, wear your normal office attire. For many people, that is not a full suit. Someone who works in tech, for example, might just wear a button-down with no tie or jacket or a collared shirt. For many industries, that look is completely fine.

Women often face greater challenges than men when it comes to identifying appropriate in-person business meeting attire. It tends to be easier on video, as most women’s attire from business casual to business formal looks appropriate.

Are virtual backgrounds ever a good idea?

Virtual backgrounds rarely make a good impression. What’s become common is people using backgrounds that look like living rooms. Some are so good I’ve questioned whether they were real. You don’t want a recruiter or potential employer’s focus to be on your virtual background during an interview.

I was interviewing a candidate who seemed to be in this beautiful living room – the design was spot on and the room was meticulously clean. Then the wind hit his curtain in real life and distorted what I had previously thought was a real background to an odd trapezoid shape. I had to bring it up on the call because it was so jarring.

Turns out he’d taken the realtor’s photo of his condo living room and set it as his background. Those realtor photos are staged and lit to look perfect, so when he took the background off and the environment wasn’t quite so immaculate, it felt odd. It made me question his integrity and authenticity.

For analog backgrounds, how should interviewees think about that space?

The right space, the right lighting – it all matters.

If you’re going to conduct the interview where I can read the titles of the books on your bookshelf, I will likely look at what you’re reading. If there are books or objects behind you that could be offensive, yet you’ve proudly displayed them, that connotation could be an issue.

Be aware of feeding into stereotypes people may already hold of you. I was watching a newscast recently and the on-air talent was filming from home. One newscaster was sitting in a pink room with her cheerleading trophies behind her and someone else on the newscast commented on that. She replied with something along the lines of, ‘Why does everyone treat me like I’m nothing more than a former cheerleader?’ Well, she was not doing much to change that perception.

If your space is an honest reflection of yourself and it helps illustrate your capability to excel in an executive role, you’re doing it right. If you’ve won some sort of CFO-of-the-Year award and you’re interviewing for a CFO position, that makes sense to display on your shelf. Objects or photos that show your connection to your family or the hobbies you’re passionate about are also opportunities to drive connection and engagement. People often don’t think enough about what’s behind their seat. Your space is truly a representation of yourself, so it pays to be thoughtful.

And if in a situation where you’re forced to choose between a background that’s distracting or unkempt and a background that’s essentially blank nothingness, go with the blank nothingness. Alternatively, use the background blur function if the video conferencing program has one.

Candidates are often at greater risk of disruption when interviewing from home. Are they being judged for that barking dog or rambunctious child?

The expectation is there may be some disruption when people are working from home.

Your dog barking once or twice won’t lose you the job. I get that not everyone has a private place or an ability to have young kids cared for in a way that keeps them completely silent or out of the house for an hour. Most candidates know their environment well enough to comment about potential disruptions upfront.

Something along the lines of, “Hey, I just want to warn you my eight-year-old is coloring in the hallway. If she needs something, she may pop in for a second.” Or, “I’ve got dogs. Hopefully no squirrels in the yard are going to disrupt them.” That little upfront warning shows awareness, so do provide that quick heads-up if you know it could happen.

If  the distraction is really bad and aggressive – if you have a dog who will bark the entire call – do your best to circumvent it. Do not be in the same room as the dog. The vast majority of time, interruptions are minimal and the interview flows cleanly.

But if something does happen, seeing how a person reacts towards their dog or their child or their spouse in that moment can be revealing. How people treat their loved ones should be their best self. If people react to a disruption in a negative or aggressive way, it can reveal a side of their personality they weren’t intending to showcase. Those reactions can cast doubt on their ability to handle the unexpected.

What actions should a candidate take in advance to ensure a strong impression?

Boot up the video call application in advance to avoid last-minute surprises.

Most video solutions allow you to host a meeting by yourself. Utilize that functionality ahead of time and assess your set-up. Make sure the area you plan to use isn’t a dead spot for Wi-Fi. See what the lighting is like. Evaluate your background.

Make sure you know how to enter the meeting and how to turn the camera and microphone on. If it’s the first time you’ve used the application, you’ll often need to give permission to access your camera and microphone. That’s something to handle in advance of the interview. You also want to make sure you know where the chat feature is located, as that can be a back-up form of communication should you run into trouble.

Even well-prepared candidates can occasionally suffer a technology failure. What’s the proper response should an unforeseen issue arise?

If you’re in the application, you can usually utilize the chat feature.

It’s easy to send a message that says something like, ‘Hey, my camera’s not turning on, and I’m not sure why.’ Remain calm and offer an alternative. If the audio still works, you can propose just conducting the interview in that fashion. You might suggest switching to a service like FaceTime or Slack video. Perhaps your laptop isn’t cooperating, but your iPhone or iPad would.

Every person’s first thought when someone can’t get into a meeting is that they don’t know how to use the technology. That’s not actually the case most of the time, but that’s the perception they will have to battle. How you respond says a lot. Are you using the resources available to you? You’ll come across as more tech savvy if you can identify the issue and suggest a solution rather than just throw your hands up in the air.

The signals candidates send in such instances can be fairly telling. Most don’t even realize it. Keep your cool, find a way to communicate, and identify a solution. And if all else fails, the courteous thing to do is to quickly re-schedule around the person who did not experience the issue.

Falcon provides C-suite talent solutions for middle-market private equity firms across North America. Follow us on LinkedIn.